Barbiturates Abuse Causes, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

Often times the signs of barbiturate addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of barbiturate addiction.

Understanding Barbiturate Addiction

Learn about barbiturates and substance abuse

Barbiturates are a group of drugs belonging to the sedative-hypnotic class that cause feelings of decreased anxiety as well as allow sleep-inducing effects. Often referred to as “downers,” “reds,” and “yellow jackets,” barbiturates are very dangerous drugs. While the popularity of barbiturate abuse has declined in recent years, these drugs are still abused. Barbiturates have a very high physical and psychological addiction potential – taking barbiturates for as little as one month can cause significant changes in the function and structure of the brain.

Besides the high risk for addiction potential barbiturates carry, one of the primary reasons that barbiturate abuse has not been as rampant as it was during the 1950’s and 1960’s is because abuse of barbiturates has been linked to a number of deaths. The dosage required for barbiturates to achieve their effects varies wildly among users. One milligram may be optimal for some to achieve feelings of drowsiness while in others it can be poisonous. This is one of the many reasons that barbiturate use is very dangerous.

First seen in medical use in the early 1900’s, the use of barbiturates were popular to treat anxiety disorders, seizure disorders, and insomnia. Medical prescriptions of barbiturates has significantly declined over the years, but the street abuse of barbiturates has seen a rise over the last ten years. A number of people use barbiturates as a means to stabilize the symptoms of other drugs, especially amphetamines like cocaine and methamphetamines. Those who abuse barbiturates often use them as a way to get high as the effects are similar to the buzz caused by alcohol consumption and intoxication.

Barbiturates have a very narrow therapeutic-to-toxic window. This means that the difference between a dose that leads to drowsiness or a high and a dose that can lead to life-threatening consequences like coma or death is relatively small. Barbiturates are highly addictive, prolonged use can lead to dependence upon the drug and if the drug is not taken, withdrawal symptoms may also occur.

Overdose from barbiturates often involves multi-drug use, especially if barbiturates are combined with alcohol, opiates, hydrocodone or oxycodone, as all of these drugs can cause respiratory depression and suppress breathing. Serious symptoms of a multiple-drug overdose can develop unpredictably leading to respiratory failure, coma, and death.

One cannot treat barbiturate addiction at home; immediate medical and hospitalization is necessary for a person to properly detox from barbiturate. After a person who is addicted to barbiturates is properly detoxified, he or she will need long-term therapy and treatment in order to recover from this dangerous addiction.


Barbiturate addiction statistics

While not as common today, barbiturate abuse is still a problem for many. Approximately 9% of Americans will abuse barbiturates at some point during their lives. It’s estimated that one in every five children will grow up in a home in which barbiturates or another substance is abused.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for barbiturate addiction

Similar to other addictions, there’s not one single root cause known as to why one person becomes addicted to barbiturates and another does not. Instead, a combination of reasons can lead to a person developing an addiction to barbiturates.

Genetic: People who have a close family member with an addiction to barbiturates or other substances of abuse are at a higher risk than the general population for developing an addiction. While having a close relative with an addiction does not always mean that you will develop an addiction yourself, there is a correlation between family members and addiction.

Biological: It has been postulated that certain people are born with deficiencies of a neurotransmitter called dopamine in their brain. Dopamine is responsible for the sensation of pleasure during activities such as eating. According to this theory, some people may “self-medicate” to correct this deficiency by abusing substances.

Environmental: While the abuse of barbiturates did drop after the 1960’s, there has been a resurgence in popularity of barbiturates. This may be due to the increase in the usage of stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines as many use barbiturates to lessen the effects of these drugs. It’s also likely that people who abuse barbiturates today do not remember the highly-dangerous effects of barbiturate abuse.

Psychological: Many people who abuse drugs do so in an attempt to lessen the severity of the symptoms caused by an underlying mental illness like bipolar disorder or anxiety. As barbiturates would serve to counteract feelings of mania and anxiety, it is likely that many who abuse barbiturates have an underlying and untreated mental illness.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of barbiturate addiction

Barbiturates have, much like alcohol, been described as “brain relaxers,” which is appropriate as the effects of alcohol and barbiturates are very similar. Opiates, pain medications, sleeping pills, and antihistamines also cause similar effects. Signs and symptoms of barbiturate abuse may include the following:

Mood symptoms:

  • Euphoria
  • Pleasure
  • Relaxation
  • Feeling high
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Overall feeling of well-being
  • Intense relaxation
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Mood swings

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Slurred, jumbled speech patterns
  • Poor concentration
  • Behaving as though intoxicated
  • Poor interpersonal skills
  • Loss of normal inhibitions
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Acting out in a violent manner
  • Speaking very slowly
  • Behaving in an uncharacteristically bold manner
  • Inability to fulfill important obligations at school, work, or at home

Physical symptoms:

  • Physical dependence
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Intense feelings of drowsiness
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Loss of coordination of the muscles
  • Staggering
  • High fever
  • Cardiovascular shock
  • Frequent infections of the respiratory tract
  • Breathing shallowly
  • Hard to breathe
  • Seizures
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Death

Psychological symptoms:

  • Addiction
  • Marked confusion
  • Delirium
  • Extreme confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Combativeness
  • Wanting to hurt other people
  • Changes in thought processes
  • Memory loss


Effects of barbiturate addiction

  • Loss of memory
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Respiratory depression
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Cardiovascular shock
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Barbiturate addiction and co-occurring disorders

  • Addictions or usage of stimulants such as amphetamines or methamphetamines
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Other addictions
  • Schizophrenia

Effects of Withdrawal

Effects of withdrawal from barbiturates

The effects caused by withdrawal from barbiturates need immediate medical intervention. While these effects may appear to be mild, they can quickly progress to extremely severe without any discernible warning. Withdrawing from barbiturate use must be done under the close supervision of a trained medical staff. Effects of barbiturate withdrawal include:

  • Shakiness and tremors in the muscle groups
  • Problems sleeping
  • Feeling agitated
  • Hallucinating
  • Dangerously high core body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Death